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Travelling in Nepal

Travelling in Nepal

On the 3rd September 2018, I set off on the long journey from Caterham to Nepal.

On arrival at Kathmandu, on the afternoon of the 4th, we were met by the holiday company’s representatives – two young men, Sangeet and Sanjit – who greeted us enthusiastically, with ‘Namaste’ (‘Hello/Hi’ – still my only word of Nepali, much used during my stay) and draped a cream stole around the shoulders of each member of our group, as we climbed onto the waiting minibuses. Once all were seated, the two minibuses drove in convoy from Tribuvhan Airport (named after the king who had established it) to our hotel in central Kathmandu.

As with any capital city, there was heavy traffic, and, although the road we took was tarmacked, the pavements we passed were in a very bad state of repair – which we found to be the norm throughout Nepal – if they existed at all. It struck me that, although very dusty, so many people wore face masks when going about their daily business, the streets were surprisingly clean, with no sign of the detritus I was expecting, from reading ‘Travels in Nepal’ by Charlie Pye-Smith, written in 1988!

Our hotel was very comfortable – as were all the hotels we stayed in – though we became used to the fluctuations in the electricity and water supplies, typical of developing countries.

It must be remembered, too, that Nepal had a major earthquake in 2016, which killed over 500 people and devastated many buildings, including those in their UNESCO World Heritage Sites – of which, for such a small country (a narrow strip of land only 550 miles east to west and 125 miles north to south), they have a surprisingly large number.

Having recovered from the long journey there overnight, on our first full day, we visited three of Nepal’s important historical sites – two of which are of great religious significance – Boudhanath and Pashuputinath. These are both very important temple sites for their respective religions – Boudhanath for Buddhists and Pashuputinath for Hindus.

About 81% of Nepalis are Hindu, and 9% are Buddhist (0.45% Christian) though both religions, which are essentially peaceable, exist very happily together, and, in many ways are interwoven – with a strong influence of animism. It is common to see Buddhist prayer flags leading up to a Hindu temple and Hindu images at a Buddhist site and followers of both religions tend to worship at either’s temples.Boudhanath is a Buddhist Stupa – a huge white dome, topped with a small white tower with a face painted on, and a golden spire – has been a site of significance for Buddhists for over 2,000 years. It is festooned with ‘prayer flags’ which are kept up for a year, and are constantly being replaced by new flags, each representing an individual’s prayers – all in colours representing the five Buddhist elements – earth, air, fire, water and sky. You cannot go into a stupa, as it is solid – but pray as you walk round, always clockwise, using the prayer wheels which are inset around its outer wall.

Boudhanath is in the centre of a square which is surrounded by 50 Buddhist monasteries, home to 1,600 Tibetan Buddhists who have left Tibet since China incorporated it in 1950. Buddha was born in Lumbini (around 6thC AD), in the south of Nepal, and this is something that Nepalis are very proud of – whatever their religion.

The other spectacular religious site of significance in the city, is the great Hindu temple complex of Pashupatinath (dedicated to Pashupati, the patron deity of Nepal and an incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu supreme being who, they believe, creates, protects and transforms the Universe) which extends along the banks of the River Bagmati. It is common to see at least one open-air cremation in progress, on the row of ghats in front of the temple, and there was indeed one being carried out when we visited – something, as a funeral director who has conducted many Hindu funerals at south London crematoria, I found particularly fascinating.

I was aware that Hindus have very specific grieving rituals – so specific that at Pashupatinath, family groups can be seen sitting on the terraces, consulting gurus (Hindu funeral directors, I guess!) whose advice they are seeking on the correct way to do things, to appease their gods on behalf of the deceased. The cremation takes around 24 hours and is followed by the main mourner carrying out a purification ritual, by plunging into the Bagmati’s waters. Although the initial grieving period lasts 13 days, the ashes are usually collected into an urn and scattered in the river on the anniversary of the cremation.

There is a bridge from the side of the river we were on, to the temple, which can only be crossed by Hindus. However, although unable to cross the river, it was a real privilege to visit this site and witness the colourful and constant activity and flow of worshippers crossing to the temple and going about their rituals.

In Kathmandu we also visited Durbar Square (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) which is, in fact, three squares containing a vast complex of ancient palaces and temples. Sadly, here, the devastation caused by the 2016 earthquake was very much in evidence as many buildings were shored up, awaiting renovation and an extensive rebuilding programme is in progress on the main palace buildings, funded by China, Japan and the USA, which is expected to be completed next year.

We left the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu the next day, to travel the narrow, unmade roads to Pokhara, north-west of the capital and the centre for trekking in the Annapurnas.

Here, I had my first glimpse of the Himalayas from the roof of our hotel. Due to the time of year, these immense mountains were covered by cloud, but, occasionally, at sunrise, the cloud lifted to reveal the mountains, as on my first day in Pokhara when I had a magnificent view of the distinctive pointed summit of Machhupuchhare – (6,993 metres) and Annapurnas III, IV and V – a breathtaking sight, as, covered in snow, they tower above the surrounding hills, themselves several thousand metres high.

The Nepalis have a completely different perspective on mountains from us, as being home to the Himalayas, most of which are over 5,000 metres (about 16,400 feet), this, to them, is the height at which a hill becomes a mountain. They laugh at us when we call Ben Nevis a mountain – Pokhara town is almost as high above sea level as Ben Nevis!

We had a free day on Saturday, and I took a local bus as far as possible, then a taxi, walking the final ascent to the Japanese Peace Temple which is up a high hill overlooking Pokhara.

From here, the views of the town and the beautiful Lake Phewa are spectacular. I loved a sign on the railings ‘Wise souls speak loudly in silence’, a gentle reminder of the universal importance of quiet to the acts of prayer and contemplation - though it appeared to have washed over the heads of one noisy group of young visitors!

Saturday is the day when all Hindus and Buddhists head for a temple, and I met many more pilgrims going up to the Peace Temple, on my way down, greeting each with ‘Namaste’, and one family even insisted on having their photograph taken with me. White faces are still a novelty in Nepal!

From Pokhara we travelled south to Chitwan National Nature Reserve, home to Royal Bengal Tigers, Spotted Leopards and One-horned Rhinos. This is a very good example of how Nepal has moved away from its traditions, as, until the 1970s, this was the prime destination for the world’s royal families to hunt game, particularly tigers. However, the World Wildlife Fund persuaded King Mahendra (the last King of Nepal) that, because of this, the Bengal Tiger, in particular, was in danger of being wiped out, so hunting was banned in Nepal, and Chitwan was established as a National Park in 1971, to protect its endangered species – another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I found road maintenance was the biggest problem I encountered in Nepal. Apart from the main trunk road from China through Nepal, to India, which was built and is maintained by the Chinese government, the other few main roads, which are cut into the hillsides, and follow river valleys, are very badly maintained, largely due to the corrupt practice of repairing the roads badly, just prior to the monsoons, which then cause further damage, and give the contractors guaranteed work.

We ended our Taste of Nepal tour 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) up in the mountains, staying at two lodges – the first at Nagerkot, where we were treated to a view of the spectacular  Langtang Range of Himalayas, at sunrise – then, after trekking from nearby Telkot for about 5 miles through woods and villages to the beautiful Changu Narayan Hindu temple, dating back to around 650 AD and another UNESCO World Heritage Site – we headed back to Kathmandu, and a free afternoon there, before flying home the following day.

I really loved my time in this fascinating and beautiful country, home to a gentle people with very strong spiritual values and clearly at peace with the challenging terrain in which they live. It is evident from my reading about the state of Nepal in 1988 (remembering it was then still a kingdom, only becoming a republic ten years ago in 2008), that they have progressed significantly since then. Given how central religion is to the lives of all Nepalis (according to the statistics, everyone living there practices a religion with 89% Hindu and Buddhist) my hope and prayer for their future is that the country’s development continues with religion remaining central to their way of life, and that they can avoid the over-development and shift away from religion largely experienced in the West.

Hilary Clark